The Kenya Forum | Smartphones: growth and advance in Kenya - The Kenya Forum

November 20, 2011


The growth of the smartphone market in Kenya tells as much about us as it poses new questions on the future of the industry, and our habits.

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Smartphones: growth and advance in Kenya

Smartphones: growth and advance in Kenya

Does your mobile telephone look good in posh restaurants? Does it have all the latest news and gossip and can it translate 20 different languages? Does it also leave you with a burning sensation in the wallet? If so, it has probably covered enough of the definitions of ‘smart’ to qualify as a Smartphone.

Smartphones in Kenya are big business and according to some, set to replace the laptop market in certain segments.

Since the definition of a Smartphone is a “high-end mobile phone built on a mobile computing platform” its not surprising that these pocketable beauties are seen not just as communication devices but also as portable computers, capable of integrating with the rest of the world.

This key feature means that smartphones can run useful software (apps) through the built in API (application programming interface). Like early desktop computers, whose popularity grew when they became useful, (programmes like Microsoft Word and Excel became key to the rapid growth of the desktop market) the software drives the hardware market.

However, given that 40% of Kenyans live on $2 a day or less, how is the smartphone market ever going to get to a point where the average man in the street can afford one?

Well, there are at least three things to consider before answering this. Firstly the Kenyan mobile market is one of the most vibrant and aggressive markets in Africa, ‘flux’ or ‘change’ could be its by-word, and it has been said to be 2-3 years ahead of of other African markets. Secondly, competition has driven the costs of bandwidth down by 50% this year alone, and the costs look like they will continue to fall. Thirdl,y consider the Envy Factor. We noted in a previous article – ‘Envy as an illustrator of the class divide‘ – that gadgets such as iPhones were high on the Envy List, and it is one of those salients facts worldwide, that people even on low incomes will spend a disproportionate amount on items that they desire and envy.


We said there were at least three things to consider, well this year the fourth consideration came in to play with the introduction of the Ideos Smartphone by Safaricom.

The Ideos was a classic marketing move known as the “low end flank”. In Envy terms its the difference between the Donna Karan Stores and DKNY….still expensive but not quite as eyewateringly so. For Safaricom it means 350,000 extra sales this year (they expected their initial 80,000 order to last the whole year!) and at ksh 8,999 with free airtime and bandwidth represented a genuine, well subsidised bargain.

The Ideos, made in China by Huawei in Shenzhen, runs on the Google Android platform, which is a free to use operating system, and seen by many, including the Chinese, as a major factor for African market growth.

As we said earlier, a crucial component in the growth of smartphone hardware is going to be found in the distribution of new and useful Apps.

At Pivot25, (a conference for mobile apps. developers) held in Nairobi earlier this year the winning app. was Shimba’s MedKenya app. MedKenya is an app. which provides symptom checking, first aid advice, hospital information and services alerts, thus providing quality medical information and accessibility at a low cost. Another fascinating app. aired at the conference was M-Farm which allows farmers to broadcast product availability and prices to the world via sms, thus catching the early markets and getting guaranteed returns for their work (see the full list of winners here, and a review of other Kenyan home grown apps here from the CIO magazine)

On a worldwide basis, the iPhone is still the dominant player with its bespoke operating system and huge app. store, but with a price tag which keeps it in the Envy products markets as far as Kenya goes.


Android based smartphones are the more likely route to African growth markets but still need the localised software apps. to grow further. By the very nature of their complexity, smartphones will always be more expensive than simple mobile handsets, but as we have seen it is possible to produce one which is accessible to more people. Huawei worldwide are the key manufacturer for lower cost smartphones and the Forum says ‘watch this space’ we believe there will be more to come, better, lower cost, and then a new brand…

ps. if you have a great idea for an Android app. and a ‘app-titude’ for simple programming Google now have a free Builder for Apps. Please tell us about your experiences with the free Google Builder for Apps. via

pps. in case readers were not aware, has automatic browser detection which makes it suitable for use on most Smartphones!


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